Emotional Complexity Under High Stress: Do Protective Associations for Risk Behaviors Persist Even During a Pandemic?

T. H.Stanley Seah, Pooja G. Sidney, Jennifer M. Taber, Clarissa A. Thompson, Karin G. Coifman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Risk behaviors like substance use and binge eating are often used to cope with negative emotions. Engagement in these behaviors has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Past research suggests that complex emotion conceptualizations captured as emotion differentiation (ability to discriminate between emotional states) and polarity (ability to integrate positive and negative features of emotional experience) may be protective. We examined associations of mean affect intensity, emotion differentiation, and emotion polarity with frequency of daily substance use and binge eating across 10 days in a demographically diverse sample of U.S. adults (N = 353) recruited between March 24 and April 9, 2020, when stay-at-home orders were initiated. Owing to the nested data structure and excessive zero values, analyses were conducted using multilevel zero-inflated negative binomial regression. Consistent with past research, negative affect was positively associated with frequency of substance use and binge eating. Importantly, results indicated that negative emotion differentiation was protective, predicting greater likelihood of not using substances and binge eating at all across the sampling period. These effects remained even after controlling for mean affect intensity, emotion polarity, and positive emotion differentiation. Neither positive emotion differentiation nor emotion polarity were significantly associated with either behavior. Our results suggest that greater complexity in conceptualization of negative emotions facilitates some protection against risk behaviors such as substance use and binge eating, even during periods of high environmental stress. These findings have important implications for optimizing interventions to reduce engagement in risk behaviors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)879-885
Number of pages7
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 8 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 American Psychological Association


  • COVID-19
  • binge eating
  • emotion differentiation
  • emotional complexity
  • substance use

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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